Story last updated at 5/28/2014 - 2:44 pm
Salmon season is just getting under way, but seafood companies are still selling last summer’s record catch of 226 million pink salmon — and it has prompted lots of creative thinking.
“The challenge is to market all this fish and still maintain the value,” said Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), the state’s lone marketing arm.
“It wouldn’t be any problem for the producers just to flood the market, and then we would see a tremendous downward pressure in years to come. More so, we see this as a great opportunity to introduce more people to wild Alaska salmon at a price they can afford,” Fick added.
ASMI has put forward an additional $1.5 million to promote pink salmon, both at home and overseas. And while Alaska has been shifting away from cheap canned pinks — 72 percent of the annual catch was canned a decade ago, compared to less than half in 2012 — now it’s looking “back to the future” with a smaller can.
“We’ve been really successful in marketing pink salmon which has greatly increased the value over the past 10 years. The idea is that with a smaller can size, and the market will tell us what that is, we can then hit a price point to be competitive with other protein options,” Fick explained.
The smaller cans also will let processors use the expanded product development tax, passed this year by the Alaska Legislature, to upgrade canning lines, many of which are from the 1950s. Alaska marketers also are targeting endurance athletes with magazine ads in Runner’s World, Bicycling and Competitor, Triathlete and others, as well as onsite promotions.
“We’re going to some rock and roll marathons, which is a series of road races with routes lined with live bands and cheerleaders, and we’re working with people like Kikkan Randall who are pressed for time and want a lean protein that is very nutritious. Canned salmon certainly fits that bill,” Fick said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced in January that it would buy $20 million in canned pinks for food assistance programs. Meanwhile, the huge pink pack is moving to market, said Tom Sunderland, VP of marketing for Ocean Beauty Seafoods.
“Prices haven’t crashed or anything and things are selling at an OK rate. Business looks good, so there’s absolutely no reason to panic,” Sunderland said.
State figures show a tally of 2.7 million cases of canned pinks (talls); and 1.7 million cases of halves produced from the 2013 catch. That compares to 1.3 million and 55,000 cases, respectively, from 2012.
The market should see some relief from a much smaller pink run this summer — the Alaska forecast calls for 75 million fish, a 67 percent decrease from last year’s humpy haul.
A new television pilot featuring Alaska fishermen will take them halfway across the world to the iceberg-filled waters of Greenland. A recent classified ad in the Kodiak Daily Mirror called for the best and bravest halibut longliners, stating, “Crybabies need not apply.”
“We are looking for Alaska halibut fisherman that have braved the waters of Alaska and are looking for the next great challenge,” said David Casey, executive producer at Los Angeles-based Moxie Pictures. “The Greenlandic and Atlantic halibut of Greenland are much larger and much harder to catch. You have to get right up next to the glaciers to catch them. So it is a completely different environment and we want to see if the Alaska fishermen can hack it.”
Casey said in a phone interview that only three of the toughest men will be accepted for what he described as a very different halibut fishery that is “very abundant but hard to get to.”
“They longline down with two hundred hooks into the deepest fjord fishing waters in the world, and the fishery changes with the season,” he said. “In the winter they use Greenlandic sled dogs to sled out into the inland fjords where ice extends out over the deep waters where the biggest halibut are. For the summer they go out on to the fishing waters on very small 5-meter boats; they are basically glorified bathtubs. It’s the same process, but they have to get up near the largest icebergs in the world. You are in open ocean, but what you are fighting is not necessarily the waves but the melting ice around you.”
Greenland’s halibut quota this year is 55 million pounds, and fishermen average $7 per pound. Greenland halibut is marketed in Europe; any sold in the U.S. is known as Greenland turbot.
“It is a completely different fishing environment,” Casey said. “I understand that halibut is ebbing and flowing commercially in Alaska, and I know those changes are creating new opportunities elsewhere.”
Filming of the pilot will start this summer. Interested fishermen are asked to contact Christian Skovly at email@example.com.
Call salmon buyers around the state for fish prices and you’ll get widely different responses — if any. Prices paid to Alaska salmon fishermen depend on the region, the types of fishing gear and markets. Prices also reflect bonuses for iced fish, dock deliveries and other agreements between a buyer and seller. But finding any information during the fishing season is a challenge.
“You are kind of in the dark,” said Geron Bruce, assistant director of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Division. “You have to call around and talk to fishermen; sometimes our biologists know what the prices are because sometimes there are prices on fish tickets, but a lot of times there are not. And the prices are also in flux. Until the fish are actually sold at the wholesale level, you really don’t know what the price is going to be. So there’s a lot of uncertainty, and just a lack of information.”
Bruce added that in-season price information also may not be very accurate, “even if it’s showing up someplace.”
“That’s one of the reasons some staff don’t like to deal with it because they know it’s not accurate, and there is no way they can actually arrive at an accurate figure. So they don’t want to put out information that they don’t feel they can be certain about.”
Besides, tracking salmon prices is not an agency priority.
“There are no critical decisions being made by the agency in which in season fish prices are an important piece of the information,” he said.
Still, he agreed not being able to pencil in a bottom line makes it tough to run a fishing business.
“I know there are many fishermen who don’t know what they are going to get paid who are frustrated by that,” Bruce said, “but there is nothing that we can do as the Dept. of Fish and Game to alleviate that frustration.”